A saucy Latin number called La Puerta has come to stake her claim on Neutral Bay's dining scene. And what an entrance she's made. Just a salsa step from Military Road, a striking mural of two tango dancers in a semi-erotic embrace offers a foretaste of the culinary dance this family-run diner will weave.
Pull up a copper stool by the indigo blue and white tiled bar, and under blood-red heart lights peruse the menu by Colombian chef Oscar Espinosa, formerly of Narrabeen's Mexicano. Confused by the options? Let Espinosa's wife Catherin Rodriguez guide you through the modern fusion menu. Like the tango, these dishes are best sampled in pairs — or in La Puerta's case, in groups.
A traditional Argentinian starter of pan latino — a flat cassava cheese bread ($8.90) — sets the tone for a casual dining experience that traverses the Latin American continent, and condenses it into a selection of popular dishes. But there's undoubtedly a dash of Sydney flair thrown in too. The griddle-marked bread, for example, harks back to gauchos cooking food over naked coals, but the accompanying smoked butter – salty and whipped to cream-like perfection — has mod-Oz laced in every bite. From there, move onto the pork costillitas, aka bite-size nuggets of juicy deep fried spare ribs ($6 each). Down them with Brazilian kiss peppers (a kind of tangy cross between a jalapeño and a tomato) they're served with and — ¡ya está! — there's a mini-fiesta in your mouth.
Now, tuck into mains, starting with a Colombian-inspired coastal favourite: Pescada Creole ($24). Mini fillets of kingfish are served with coconut rice and creole sauce, and South America's 'red gravy' of zesty tomatoes, coriander and chilli. Each bite of the pan fried, milky-sweet fish — the perfect foil for the creamy rice and fresh red sauce — is like a lazy South American summer afternoon. Pair it with an Argentinian Quilmes beer ($8) and it might as well be.
Chicharron — La Puerta's take on a traditional farmer's breakfast — on the other hand, takes you back into the hinterland. The four-day prepped pork belly, salted, brined and roasted, showcases Espinosa's skill with pork and yields a sweet, succulent meat. Served chorizo dusted and with pureed red beans and avocado, it's jazzed-up comfort food but is delicious nonetheless ($24).
Fancy something sweet? Try the merengon ($14), a spin on the classic Aussie pav, boasting a tower of gooey meringue discs sandwiching layers of lulo (a native Colombian orange-like fruit) and soursop (custard apple) fruit sorbet and drizzled with berry coulis. As you savour the lulo's fresh citrus-pineapple punch and the banana-like creaminess of the soursop, be glad this was one dish you decided to order solo.
With its vibrant food made for sharing and summer-ready patio perfect for weekend sessions with friends, it's no surprise La Puerta is fast becoming the north shore's go-to for South American fusion food with soul.